I’ve always liked accordions. They are so absurdly complicated-looking: a keyboard and a large array of buttons, separated by something resembling an inflatable radiator. Yet at the same time they are such beautiful objects, their varnished wooden cases trimmed in chrome and embossed with art nouveau flourishes, the keyboards set in mother of pearl or enamel. There are people who collect luxury cars, but I think an accordion collection might afford me more satisfaction.
My dad’s brother, uncle Mike, had one, and he was a dab hand at playing it. He and Auntie Sheila were regular visitors to our house, and at Christmas or Easter he would sometimes bring it along. A comic ritual had to be gone through so that he could be persuaded to play. He would first feign reluctance, and we, his audience, would temporarily turn into versions of Father Ted’s Mrs Doyle – ‘Ah, go on, go on … You will, you will’ – until he eventually agreed. (Even at the tender age of 9, I used to wonder why he had gone to all the trouble of lugging the heavy case on a bus from Wimbledon to Fulham if he didn’t want to play it.)
Once he started, we would be treated to a jolly session of jigs and reels. If we were lucky – it would require another round of Mrs Doyle-like encouragement – my dad would do his Sean-nós broom dance (the chap in the video is not my dad, but is almost as good a dancer). All the while, I would sit happily mesmerised by the blur of Uncle Mike’s hands dancing up and down the keyboards and pausing only briefly to reach for a fortifying sup of Guinness or whiskey.
Here in France, the accordion-playing busker is a stereotypical figure. When I lived in Paris, I learnt to recognise the ones who regularly worked lines 6 and 7 on the Métro. I used to think that Autumn Leaves was a particular busker favourite, until one day, en route somewhere, my friend Frank helpfully put me right:
Me: They all seem to like Autumn Leaves.
Frank: That’s not Autumn Leaves.
Me: What is it, then?
Frank: Fuck knows, but it’s not Autumn Leaves.
Anyway, to get to the point. For the past ten years, Sacha, a Roma from Serbia, has been playing the accordion in the streets of Poitiers, either in front of Notre-Dame church or in front of the Passage Cordeliers. He’s there almost every day, and is a popular local figure. My own relationship with him got off to a shaky start when I absent-mindedly shoved my hand in my pocket and scooped out my change. To my horror, just as I handed it to him I realised I was giving him the princely sum of 14 centimes. He looked at it and then bowed his head with a grave ‘Merci, Monsieur’. I’ve made amends since then, and we are now on good terms.
Last Wednesday, disaster struck. While taking a break from playing, Sacha stored his accordion, collection cap, and chair in Notre-Dame church, as he usually does, only to find on his return that the accordion had gone. Sacha speaks very little French, but Greg, a local resident who speaks Roma, took him to the police station to report the loss. Witnesses have since reported the presence of some young men hanging around outside the church that day, but searches have so far been unsuccessful.
© Photo d’archives : Dominique Bordier.
Sacha with his original accordion
A friend of Greg has lent Sacha another accordion, but it is a smaller instrument and nothing like Sacha’s Beltuna Piano, brought with him from Serbia and relatively rare in France. Meanwhile, an online fundraiser has been started, and in two days it has raised over €2,700 towards its target of €3,500.
You might think that a ‘hot’ accordion would be a difficult thing to dispose of, but it would seem that enough of them are pinched to merit a wanted list of stolen accordions, run by the website Accordions Worldwide. Sacha’s hasn’t been added yet.
In her 1996 novel Accordion Crimes, Annie Proulx tells the story of one such instrument that travelled, with its Sicilian maker and his son, to New Orleans in 1890. The story follows the accordion over the next hundred years as it crosses several states of the USA. Given, sold, or stolen, it passes through the hands of numerous immigrant families, including Italians, Germans, Norwegians, and French Canadians. I hope very much that Sacha recovers his own accordion or, if not, that the fund will pay for a suitable replacement. If the latter, it would be nice to think that, for years to come, his original Beltuna continues to travel around the countries of Europe, playing something that may or may not be Autumn Leaves.
Things I’ve learnt this week:
The Pope cannot be an organ donor, because his body belongs to the Church.
A jar of Nutella is sold somewhere in the world every 2.5 seconds.
Until the early twentieth century, left-handedness in a wife was grounds for divorce in Japan.